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Scott Frost is perfect for a possible Nebraska opening, but here’s who should be No. 2 on the list

If Mike Riley is fired, we all know UCF’s coach will be the most talked-about candidate. So let’s have some fun by looking off the radar at Navy.

AAC Championship - Temple v Navy Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

On Thursday, Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst. The school didn’t bother making up reasons related to the university’s vision or the athletic department’s long-term goals — it basically just said “We’re tired of not being awesome at football.”

Eichorst’s lone hire in a major sport came when he fired Bo Pelini and replaced him with Mike Riley. He seemed to make a mistake of scope by honing in on the guy who was most unlike the last guy, not the one who might have the highest ceiling:

If Pelini's firing wasn't a surprise, Nebraska's replacement certainly was.

In Mike Riley, Nebraska elected to bring in a guy who a) is the opposite of Pelini in demeanor and b) only won more than nine games once in 14 years at Oregon State. The minuses (he won only 29 games in the last five years) and pluses (he won 70 games in 10 years at Oregon State ... just think of what he could do at a bigger program) of his hire were evident, and honestly, that makes it difficult to know what to expect. His friendly grandpa carriage means he will earn a level of goodwill that Pelini never did, and perhaps that means that on-the-field bar won't be as high.

Then again, Solich was a super-nice guy. He got dumped after averaging 9.7 wins. So forget that part.

Under Eichorst, Nebraska took interesting steps toward innovation. Perhaps most notably, NU became the first school to hire a full-time, full-department analytics director in Tucker Zeleny, who has slowly seen his role increase. But innovation only means so much if you bomb your lone football hire.

We’ve all reacted to the news as if Riley, now 16-13 a quarter of the way through his third season (he was 14-15 in his last 29 games at Oregon State), was fired alongside Eichorst. It’s not hard to make that leap. The Huskers have lost six of their last nine games, which will wipe out the effects of your own personal charm.

The Huskers will be favorites in each of their next two games — Rutgers this Saturday, at Illinois next Friday — but will then face three top-10 teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, at Penn State) and travel to quickly improving Purdue and Minnesota over the next six weeks. Win about five of those six, and perhaps you’ve saved your job. But the fact that that task seems impossible is why Eichorst was let go.

Nebraska v Oregon
Mike Riley is just 16-13 as Nebraska’s head coach.
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Hiring the opposite of your ex is never the solution. What about hiring the favorite son?

Scott Frost is the first name mentioned in relation to a possible coaching change, and it’s not hard to see why. The former Nebraska quarterback — leader of the Huskers’ last national title winner, no less — was mentioned the last time the job was open, and since then he’s taken on the UCF job and started well.

He inherited an 0-12 team and is currently 7-7. His first UCF defense was strong, and in their lone 2017 contest, the Knights scored 61 points. It’s not hard to see them becoming a factor in the AAC race this year, and his first full-year recruiting class ranked first in the conference.

Frost has been a head coach for just 14 games, and he’s won only half of them. But his sheer upside, combined with Nebraska ties, make it obvious why he’s so constantly brought up. We don’t know about his long-term, program-building abilities, but the two architects of Nebraska football — Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne — had combined for just five years of head coaching experience before taking over in Lincoln. Devaney was 47, just five years older than Frost, and Osborne was a ripe 32.

Scott Frost
Scott Frost in his Nebraska quarterbacking days

Frost might be perfect, but what if he decides he doesn’t want it? Or what if the next athletic director overthinks things like the last one did, deciding that more experience is needed?

What other candidates would make sense?

We are reasonably predictable at SB Nation. We take ourselves and this sport seriously when we need to, but we know that this ridiculous sport should never be without its levity. So when the news came out, we responded in two ways:

  1. Make the case that this is still a pretty good job.
  2. Make Paul Johnson jokes:

Johnson is the crusty triple-option whiz who led Georgia Southern to 1-AA national titles, resurrected Navy, and has taken Georgia Tech to two Orange Bowls. Nebraska, once an Orange Bowl stalwart, hasn’t been to a bowl of that caliber since 2001.

Johnson is not known for his recruiting prowess, and his cantankerous carriage and offense not known for cranking out pro prospects (then again ...) have made him a less-than-sexy option, not only as a candidate for a new job but also as a candidate to keep his current one.

Still, the idea is not without merit. It is a joke that isn’t entirely a joke. At a school that has a smaller fan base and more selective recruiting standards, Johnson has won 72 games since the start of the 2008 season. And if you include his Navy tenure, he's won 107 games since the start of 2004.

Nebraska has 109 wins, only two more, since 2004, and with greater resources. Give Johnson greater support, help him to recruit a higher caliber of defender, and watch him improve your lot in life while also resurrecting a version of the offense that won you approximately 11 million games under Osborne.

Allow me to tweak this not-a-joke joke, however.

Johnson is 60 years old and isn’t a realistic candidate for a bigger job than the one he’s already got. But his Navy successor could be.

Connecticut v Navy
Ken Niumatalolo
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Ken Niumatalolo is only 52. He learned the triple option under Johnson, and he has brought stunning, sustained success to Navy. With all the recruiting restrictions that you have to deal with at a service academy, he won at least eight games in six of his first seven seasons, and he is 22-7 since the start of 2015.

In 2015, with the right combination of experience and quarterback prowess, Navy went 11-2 and finished 25th in S&P+ and 18th in the AP poll. Nebraska hasn’t won 11 games since 2001, hasn’t finished higher than 18th in the AP since 2009, and hasn’t ranked in the S&P+ top 25 since 2012.

In 2016, when the Midshipmen lost an all-timer at QB, Keenan Reynolds, and much of their defense, they fell all the way ... to nine wins. Somehow, despite QB injuries, their offense improved from 23rd to 17th in Off. S&P+.

Navy’s five-year recruiting ranking is 85th, and Niumatalolo has had one season of fewer than eight wins in his head coaching career. Sure, the Midshipmen aren’t playing a Big Ten schedule, but in the last two seasons they’ve beaten Notre Dame, Pitt, and two top-15 teams (Houston in 2016, Memphis in 2015). Imagine what he might be able to do with just top-40 recruiting.

The triple option is the most steadily efficient offense in college football, and Niumatalolo has been college football’s best win manufacturer over the last decade. Over the last four years, Nebraska has gone 9-12 in one-possession finishes and has lost three games by at least 30 points; Navy, meanwhile, has gone 12-6 in one-score games and has lost zero games by that much.

(I know what you’re thinking, by the way. “Yeah, but once opponents have seen his offense a couple of times, they’ll adapt, and it won’t work anymore.” It’s everybody’s reflex. It’s also painfully untrue. Niumatalolo’s option gets better every year, and when you play against him, he learns what you’re going to do.)

Hiring Frost would be a quest for upside. Frost’s demeanor is closer to Pelini’s than Riley’s, and we don’t know all we need to know about his ability to handle media scrutiny and the pressure of being the sure-thing favorite son. But it’s easy to make the case for hiring him, if he wants the job.

If Frost isn’t the guy, however, hiring Niumatalolo would be a quest for wins.

He wouldn’t threaten to recruit at a top-10 level, but he would put a sexy, familiar offense on the field. While we don’t know what his defenses would be like at a bigger school — his current 3-4, bend-don’t-break scheme arose from necessity, not preference — they would likely be decent enough to give the offense a chance to win nearly any game.

We know Nebraska probably won’t consider Niumatalolo. A new athletic director aiming to make a big splash is going to shoot for a blue-chipper, not an overachiever, and no matter how efficient the triple option is, recruiting will prevent an option master from getting a job this big.

But recruiting at a top-40 level and winning at a top-20 level, while led by a guy every bit as likable as Riley? There are worse fates than that.